Last summer, the rapper Tupac Shakur gave a surprise performance at the Coachella music festival in Indio, California, to an extremely enthusiastic crowd. The performance was stunning for two reasons. First, Shakur wasn’t listed on the line-up, and second, he has been dead for over a decade. Shakur’s postmortem performance was made possible by a computer-generated image of him paired with extremely high quality projection technology.
Last month we wrote about the importance of face-to-face interactions. As technology permeates every aspect of our lives, however, the line between the physical and virtual worlds is increasingly blurry. What the crowd at Coachella experienced—a computer generated performer playing to a live concert crowd—falls into the growing and difficult-to-define category of augmented reality. Though this term is most often used in the context of mobile-device applications, it actually extends far more deeply into current technology trends.
Augmented reality tends to sneak up on you. Do you remember the first time you used a touch screen or saw someone play Nintendo Wii or employ another motion-controlled device? These technologies revolutionized how we physically interact with the digital world. But it probably only took a few days before that new interface seemed commonplace. Other technologies we’d consider augmented reality include GPS that overlays our physical location on a virtual map, and social media that allows us to project our presence around the globe. Even technologies as benign as those that display stats over a football game or indicate the first down line are a form of augmented reality.
Though the shift has been gradual, we are reaching an inflection point. Robert Scoble, who has written extensively on augmented reality, has identified five trends that are driving the change.
1. Proliferation of always-connected sensors
2. New kinds of cloud-based databases
3. Refined approaches to contextual software development
4. Maturing social networks in which nearly everyone participates
5. Wearable computers and sensors such as the Nike FuelBand, the FitBit, and the soon-to-be-released Google Glasses
Somewhere in the convergence of these trends lies the augmented reality that science fiction has long promised us. Humans can only focus on one thing at a time, but augmented reality systems will capture, store, and process massive amounts of data for us. The Project Glass demo at last summer’s Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco gave attendees the opportunity to experience a base jumper’s leap from a plane and subsequent descent onto the Moscone Center roof, all via Google hangout. Extreme sports aside, it’s not too difficult to imagine a near-term future in which Google glasses provide text translation or help place a name to a face. Perhaps you’ll just need to point your smartphone camera at them. Augmented reality could become a routine component of our daily navigation of the world.
Last month, we saw Nike’s Stefan Olander present the Nike FuelBand at GigaOm’s Roadmap 2012 conference. It’s not hard to draw the line from this activity-monitoring device to consumer offerings that will monitor and give instant feedback on a litany of biometric data in real time.
At the heart of all this lies the problem of contextual computing; your device knowing the difference between getting mugged and watching a movie could mean the difference between autodialing 9-1-1 and displaying popcorn ads. As we continue to plug in, Net services and other businesses will accumulate a wealth of extremely valuable personal and contextual data on individuals. Augmented reality and contextual computing could generate as great a fundamental change in the business marketplace as the Internet and mobile devices have.
This news may be disheartening to companies still figuring out how to effectively use mobile. But it’s important to remember that regardless of the rate of technological process, there are some constants upon which we can rely.
One is the willingness of people to trade value for value. The level of privacy we’re willing to give up is proportional to the level of benefit we receive. Companies currently pay people to take surveys and participate in focus groups. What will it take for people to allow corporations to access data related to the most intimate aspects of their lives? We grant social networks access to our personal data because the process augments current relationships. Consumers will only allow access to their data in exchange for something that is genuinely enriching or informative, such as biosensors that promise healthier and longer lives. Our guess is that this value will generally not take the form of cash payments, but rather will be delivered in the form of advice and guidance that helps us to get more value out of the physical environments we are navigating.
Another constant is the importance of trust. All business world exchanges are predicated on trust. Consumers must have faith in the organizations that want access to their data, and companies will need to build brands that people are willing to bet their lives on. Security and privacy will be paramount. Interestingly, the more sources of information people have, the more important relationships of trust become. As companies build trust, they will find a virtuous cycle: the more they can establish trust and gain access to personal information, the more value they can add. They become an indispensable advisor to their customers. Companies that can achieve and maintain this role will find that, because they are in tune with their customers’ needs, they will be able to evolve with them, despite changing market conditions.
When thinking about the brave new world, it’s easy to envision a scenario teetering between the wonderful and the Orwellian. Sometimes it’s easier to grasp the broader picture by focusing on recent successes, along with the next steps in the process. So perhaps now that Tupac Shakur has broken the ice, we can look forward to seeing the Beatles on a virtual tour.
John Hagel III, director in Deloitte Consulting LLP, is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, based in Silicon Valley.  John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.